Democracy is more than a vote - RSA

Democracy is more than a vote

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  • Picture of Reema Patel
    Research Director and Head of Deliberative Engagement, Ipsos
  • Economic democracy
  • Economics and Finance

Our newly released animation, ‘Democracy is more than a vote’, calls for a different way of thinking about both democracy and society. In recent years, our ability to vote or not has seemingly become the single yardstick of whether a country is democratic or not.

Democracy beyond the ballot box

But a vote alone won’t give a person the ability to learn more, to have greater agency or to think more critically about the things that affect their lives. A vote alone won’t give a person the ability to go out and ask for the change they wish to see to make their lives better. And a vote alone won’t give people the agency and ability to shape their futures, rather than being limited to making a judgement about their past. For these reasons, we need to look beyond the ballot box – understanding elections and electoral democracy as one part of a wider, more complex system of democracy.

There is now a renewed sense of urgency about these issues. The appalling quality of debate we continue to experience about Brexit, the growth of populist moments across the world, the sense that citizens have fallen prey to more and more technocratic models of decision making which have locked them out of power, and the emergence of the era of ‘post-truth’, all speak to both the scale of the challenge and the pressing need for change. We also live in an era where knowledge, money and power are arguably less fairly distributed than they have ever been in history.

Democracy as a deliberative system

How might we go about finding a new narrative for democracy that can help address these kinds of huge challenges? Democracy, Professor John Dryzek once said, should be understood as a deliberative system. Consider the word itself – ‘deliberation’ comes from Latin and means ‘to weigh up or to consider well’. Deliberation helps us look to the future; bring diverse people together; encourage learning and reflection; and promote consensus and compromise over bitter divides. In Athens, the use of deliberation helped to support and complement representative democracy (the election of political representatives) by ensuring elected politicians engaged with citizen perspectives and views. When viewed through this historical lens, democracy beyond the ballot box is not a new idea – for us, the task is about restoration (ensuring that it remains true to its roots), as much as it is about innovation.

The ideal of democracy as a deliberative system says that the essence of effective democracies are how able they are to operate as a feedback loop – transmitting and acting as accountability mechanisms between those who hold power; and those who have an interest in the outcome of the issue or the decision. Healthy democracies are able to promote responsiveness and accountability between institutions, experts and citizens; whilst those that fail to, do lack precisely those qualities. In rethinking democracy, we are asked to demand more of ourselves as well as of our institutions – confronting deep cultural change in the way we interact with those whose lives we affect, simply by the mere fact of our own existence.

Democratic restoration and democratic innovation

In our animation, we provide just two examples of the many democratic innovations across the world where countries across the world are seeking to create new and different feedback loops between citizens, experts and politicians on complex and challenging social problems – the kinds of problems that require the ‘whole system’ to be engaged. They are doing so through the creation of ‘mini-publics’; spaces such as citizen juries, assemblies and participatory budgets; which aim, in different ways and to different purposes, to engage the ‘whole system within a room’. We feature examples such as Ireland’s constitutional convention, which proposed a referendum on same-sex marriage, as well as participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre in Brazil. But there are many other such examples across the world – notably the extended deliberative processes emerging in Canada and in Australia as covered by Claudia Chwalisz’s recently published book, The People’s Verdict. In the UK alone, democratic innovations such as the NHS Citizen Assembly, Democracy Matters, Sciencewise, the Citizens’ Brexit Assembly and the RSA’s very own Citizens’ Economic Council draw upon the principles of deliberative democracy to illustrate the potential of a democracy beyond the ballot box. It is clear from our experience that these types of approaches have to support citizens and experts to refashion a better, less technocratic, less populist and more collaborative democracy.

The scale of the challenge and opportunity ahead

I want to add a few caveats at this stage. Firstly, the growing use of mini-publics has been in response to a widespread perception of a democratic deficit in policymaking. But that is not to say that they alone can solve our most difficult social challenges – they cannot. Systems are complex, emergent and are constituted of individuals and institutions with competing incentives and barriers. Democracies are no exception to this rule. It would be naïve for us to suggest that mini-publics alone have the capability to shape and to create a more deliberative, democratic and legitimate system.

The question of creating a better democracy might present us with more challenges than perhaps we are equipped to answer – but they also present us with opportunities. Perhaps the best description of what these opportunities look like is, again, one of the oldest. The Ancient Greek thinker Archimedes once said; ‘give me a lever, and a fulcrum upon which to place it – and I shall move the world.’ We say that deliberation might be just one of those levers amongst many that exist to effect meaningful democratic systems change – but it’s a vitally important one nevertheless.

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  • Cont'd from above...

    The Ausgrid Customers at the Centre project has once again demonstrated that the community at large want to see proactive efforts on behalf of government (at all levels), regulators, energy generators, distribution companies, energy retailers, manufacturers of products, etc to fully embrace the clean energy future and make it a reality. 'The market' is moving inexorably in this direction. And yet for the past 10 years, 'elected representatives' in Australia have squabbled, not represented their constituents, not developed clear energy policies, stifled investment in renewables and - as a direct result - increased power prices.

    The response of the Australian Government now, trying to save its skin with its 1-seat majority, is to advocate for more investment in coal-fired power stations; advocate for keeping open the Liddell coal-fired power station which its commercial operator says is not viable beyond its current life cycle to 2024; to make statements like Craig Kelly, the Chairman of the Government MPs Committee on the Environment, that "renewables are killing people"; and try to rubbish new innovations such as Elon Musk giving South Australia the world's biggest battery (the Energy Minister comparing it to 'The Big Banana' tourist attraction in Coffs Harbour).

    If we gave any credence whatsoever to what these 'elected representatives' say and do, we would be heading backwards and not moving forwards into a wonderful world of 'affordable sustainability'. 

    It seems heretical to question the legitimacy of elected politicians but question it we must. We often hear politicians challenging energy & utility businesses about their 'social licence to operate' or their 'environmental licence to operate'. Based on their poor track record in recent years, I think we have a right to question our elected representatives 'political licence to operate'!


    Customer & Stakeholder Engagement Specialist, Ausgrid 

    (& engagement advisor to the Australian energy sector) 

  • Cont'd from above...

    Some politicians hold on to the delusion that they are 'representative'. Others accept that this is not the case but that they are 'a representative' of their electors' views. However, the evidence tends to suggest that most elected representatives are not actually very good at representing their electors' views. In the confusion of the Brexit Referendum and the bizarre marriage equality debate in Australia (Government MPs refusing to vote, arguing for a binding referendum or compulsory, non-binding plebiscite before finally settling on a non-binding, voluntary postal vote costing $122 million, guaranteed to give unrepresentative views, and still needing a vote in parliament afterwards!), it is hard to see what 'representation' is taking place in amongst this sea of unrepresentativeness!!!

    But, thankfully, we are having more and more examples of life going on and progress being made despite the politicians, certainly not because of them. Democracy has to be 'more than a vote' because voting mechanisms are but one or two pieces in a jigsaw puzzle that needs a dozen pieces before it's clear what the picture is. Voting for MPs or Senators is no less valid but no more important than a well conducted participative engagement process. 

    We have politicians who think that a referendum is the ultimate expression of citizens' views, and the source of solutions to complex problems as with Brexit. Apart from the Brexit result being split down the middle (and yet politicians keep saying it was a "clear result" when it wasn't and "the people have spoken" when we still don't know what they said) a referendum is a poor tool for participative democracy. Why do we put up on a pedestal a tool for taking a complex problem and reducing it to a single question and yet dismiss sample surveys as "mere polls" when they can ask 10 questions and provide some insight in the cross-analysis? 

    Cont'd below...

  • I've just designed & led some deliberative forums in Australia which stakeholders have described as ground-breaking in their depth & detail around deciding on tariff structures for electricity distribution. There is a report (Customers at the Centre - Phase Two) available here:

    The Customers at the Centre project included classic customer research (e.g. 14 focus groups and a survey of a fully representative sample of 2,362 network customers); deliberative engagement; consultation around specific propositions & trade offs (e.g. a change in tariff structures combined with a proposed 'bill shock protection levy' to fund transitional relief for low energy using 'vulnerable' customers); an open & transparent 'continuous conversation' with key stakeholders & customer advocates; and pioneering applications of choice modelling to evaluate the sub-conscious drivers of customer preferences when asked to rate what is in their long-term interests as customers and what pricing structures they consider to be 'fair' - the great Aussie value which rational economics driven regulators ignore at their peril!   

    Between them, these different approaches are all valid pieces in a jigsaw that, with enough key pieces, starts to give us a reliable picture of the views of people as customers and as citizens.

    Over the past 30 years, I have observed a disconnect between the reality of what has been happening on-the-ground in terms of councils, public services, not-for-profits, community activists, engagement professionals, etc continuing to develop participative approaches - founded on a belief that people should be involved in decisions that affect their lives, but delivered through practical approaches and an ever-expanding toolkit - and 'the chattering classes' (with The RSA often being in this camp rather than at the leading edge of practice) sporadically intellectualising about the need to 'go beyond the ballot box'. Many of us did that a long, long time ago!

    We engagement professionals learned long ago that 'representative democracy' is a misnomer. 'Representation democracy' would probably be a more accurate term to describe what we have. It is rare that any parliament in any country has elected politicians who are remotely representative of the population they serve. Indeed, fewer than 0.05% of the population ever stand for any kind of public office. As soon as anyone even seriously thinks about standing as an MP or Senator, they are already untypical of the population and guaranteed to be unrepresentative.

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